While so many successful young actors come on like pouting putative pop stars, Kenneth Branagh is shaping up as the contemporary version of an eighteenth century actor-manager, tackling film, stage and TV parts; writing, directing and running his own theatre company.
There can´t be many young actors who measure themselves against Kean or Garrick rather than Robert De Niro. But for Kenneth Branagh, theatrical history is a constant presence; and when he gossips, it´s more likely to be Green Room chat from a bygone era than Groucho Club scuttlebutt. A typical yarn: "In his first night in London, Henry Irving had this huge personal success in Merchant of Venice or Richard the Third or something, and he was going home, driving across Hyde Park in a handsome cab with his missus. There´d been a standing ovation and it was obvious he had Arrived, it was a wonderful, wonderful evening. And as they were driving across the park, his wife turned to him and said, 'How long are you going to go on making a fool of yourself like this?'. Irving stopped the cab, got out, walked home, collected his things, left, and never saw her again."
He laughs with approval and sympathy, though it seems doubful whether he has ever known humiliation or anger like Irving´s. Ever since ha was plucked out of RADA to go straight to the West End run Another Country, Branagh´s head has been covered with early growths of laurel. "He strolled around that stage as if born on it", Anthony Sher said of his Stratford performance of Henry V in 1984. Irving Wardele of The Times described him as "a great discovery, appearing suddenly out of nowhere, fully matured."
Three years later, at the age of not quite 27, Branagh is very much the British theatre´s golden boy, finding himself (with almost monotonous consistency) on the receiving end of some of the best notices any young actor has enjoyd since Olivier first trod the boards. Not content with tempting nemesis on just one front, however, he´s also tackled a range of projects that might daunt theatrical veterans with three times his experience.
He has worked as a director of classics like Romeo and Juliet as well as modern oddities such as John Session´s one-man recreation of the life of Napoleon. He has written his own play, Public Enemy -- a gangster-style drama set in Nothern Ireland -- and there are some more scripts lining the bottom drawer, plus the prospect of a "highly scurrilous" novel about his time at the Royal Shakespeare Company (it may get written during odd moments in 1988). Most notably, he´s rejected the usual star´s career pattern of West End/Natinal Company/Hollywood to knuckle down to the spit and sawdust of running his own production company, Renaissance Theatre.
It was Renaissance (affectionately known as 'Relentless' to its workers) that really made Branagh stand out from his contemporaries, and had sub-editors throughout Grub Street reaching for the headline 'Renaissance Man'. Rehearsals for Twelfth Night, the latest Renaissance enterprise (directed by Branagh, starring Richard Briers), were in full swing when he took some time out for our interview in mid-November; there were a few grumbles about the pressures of work, but signs of strain were not much in evidence. His calm was the more surprising when you recalled that it was week of unusually high exposure, even by Branagh standards.
Later that night, the BBC would be screening the latest episode of Fortunes of War, an adaptation of Olivia Manning´s Balkans Trilogy that was already proving to be the middlebrow TV cult of year. Branagh took the male lead, Guy Pringle, an ineffectual British Council type based closely on the novelist´s own husband ("I suspect the man was actually a terrible pain in the arse"). Two days later A Month in the Country (Pat O´Connor´s film starring Branagh as World War One veteran) would be having its major press show, prior to release later in the week.
Both parts show utterly different aspects of the actor´s talents, and even of his features - though Henry V established him as a full-blooded swagger, he´s equally at home as the distant Pringle or the cheery-though-traumatised Major. All this press attention, plus the fact that he was having real problems getting hold of some snow for Twelfth Night.
"I´ve set the play at Christmas time, in a winter landscape, and can I get the fucking snow? It´s being flown over from Germany, we hope, before the first performance. It´s this special kind of paper that has to be fireproof. I´ve spent half the week trying to sort that out. You find yourself in the middle of phone calls thinking. What am I doing? You think, I´ve spent six months trying to get the cast together for this play, and now here I am in the fourth week of rehearsals and my whole time is taken up with fucking snow-gathering."
His grumbling is more humorous than ill-tempered, but he is clearly annoyed by any suggestion that his management style has anything of the dilettante about it. "Somebody may read something about me and think, yeah, he´s just woken up morning and thought 'I´ll just start a bloody theatre company', that´s all right for him, isn´t it, and then he gets a bunch of people to write nice things about it and it´s all fucking easy. And it isn´t. A lot of it is deeeply unglamorous. One of the actors in Twelfth Night said to me yesterday as we were walking down the stairs, 'Where are you having lunch?' and I said "Oh, I´ve got to stay and talk to this bloke about money', and he said 'Really? You must enjoy all that' and I said 'No I fucking hate it! It´s the most boring shit, I want to do the play, I want to have my lunch as well!' You very quickly lose the magic of the martyrdom syndrome."
Humdrum work can, of course, sometimes have a perverse glamour of its own, and Branagh has spoken of his admiration for practical men of the theatre like Olivier or (again, alive to the stage´s past) David Garrick, the 18th century actor/manager -- he imagines him "with his sleeves rolled up at the end of the week, doling out the money to his cast". Sometimes there's a mild incongruity betwen these recondite comparisons and his quiet, classless tones, until you realise that some dead actors can be more vivid to him than less animated contemporaries.
"Somebody I know complained that in Fortunes of War I didn´t come out of the screen, that I was too flat, as if they were expecting Edmund Kean or somebody. But I was just serving the part, not trying to be showy. Anyway, Edmund Kean wouldn´t have tried to be showy either if he was playing Guy Pringle."
And we´re back in the Green Room of antiquity.
Branagh´s allusive habit stems from his view of the theatre as a long-stablished trade, where hard physical work doesn´t militate against "a transcendent performance of Hamlet". His own adjective for his attitude to work is 'Puritan', and that word could be applied to other sides of his temperament - his suspicion for pretentious, theoretical approaches to acting and directing, his willingness to dispose with some of the airs that his trade tends to give itself. "Actors get a bit wanky about this sort of thing", he remarks on the subject of performance nerves.
He fights shy of detailed discussion of the topic, but it seems likely that some robust attitudes must have come from his chilhood in Belfast. Born in the region in 1960, he was brought to the suburban tranquility of Reading at the age of nine, when the barricades finally went up at the end of his street.
"I was very young, but not so young as to be unaware of where you should and should not go. The sectarian thing was never very far beneath the surface, all this thing of being stopped by kids in the park and asked 'Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?', and it was always a trick question so that they could beat you up."
There was no theatrical side to his family -- his father was a carpenter -- but his earliest memory of powerful acting stems from those early Belfast years. "I remember seeing Birdman of Alcatraz, with Burt Lancaster, and being really afeccted by it. Some of it was just the story, the whole idea of being in a cage, but I also remember thinking, What a wonderful performance."
In England, actorly ambitions fell dormant for a while. Not greatly distinguished at school, he nonetheless managed to secure himself a regular column reviewing children´s books in the local newspaper that lasted until O-Level time, when he became disgusted with himself for turning in a review that simply duplicated the book´s cover notes. "I just felt it was terrible that I should already be jaded at the prospect of a deadline."
It was around this time that the lure of amateur theatricals began to take hold, and the unscholarly boy took to poring over Shakespeare and histories of the stage. Still stuck in the mire of adolescent aimlessness (there is an oft-quoted story about the young Branagh being dragged home by his father after he had retired, comatose from drink, to a dog basket), he realised that "university or job training was just not the place for a frustrated actor". At the age of 16 he went to Stratford for the first time, lived in a tent and watched the likes of Jonathan Pryce and Michael Pennington doing their stuff. His addiction was confirmed, and his family were anxious for all the usual reasons -- "They thought that the stage was all unemployment and too many gay boys" -- but a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art served the same reassuring function for them as it had two decades earler for Joe Orton´s mum.
RADA set the pattern for compulsive work that he has followed ever since. "When I first came to London I was terrified, and RADA was very reassuring because it was all-absorbing. The principal there was a man called Hugh Cruttwell, a terrific bloke, and his view was that your work should be on show to the public in the Vanburgh Theatre from the second term on, so you were constantly preaparing, rehearsing and acting. There was no great party line there, you´d be working with a whole variety of directors, from Stanislavkian or whatever to those who´d just say 'Oh, you come in over there, love and then you sit down'. I thought that was a very healthy atmosphere. Of course there were niggles, it´s sort of a hot-house and claustrophobic at times, and like everybody else I thought I was being cast as old men all the time. You have this strange bloody idea and think the whole world´s againts you a bit. But I liked the idea of constantly being reminded that you were doing it for people, and I knew that even before I went there."
Success followed with unnerving swiftness. In his final year Branagh was given a brief release from RADA to take the lead in Graham Reid´s television drama about Belfast, Too Late to Talk to Billy; and he was still preparing his final term´s production of Hamlet when he was chosen to play Tommy Judd in the new cast of Julian Mitchell´s Another Country, for the play´s transfer from Greenwich to the West End. After a year´s stint of TV work in Australia, he returned to London with an extraordinarily ambitious show -- a one-man performance of Tennyson´s poem MAUD, 1400 lines (or an hour and 20 minutes) long and never before staged.
"Christ, it was really daunting. I dared myself to do it, and booked the theatre so I´d have to. Incredibly lonely, just on the most basic social level; I don´t enjoy being in the dressing room on my own, knowing that this fucking nightmare is going to come up. It's like when you´re ten minutes into it and you know that you´ve got another hour and ten minutes when no one else will talk, and it´s not 'Dallas' dialogue or anything, it´s the kind of stuff that needs to be supported by quiet intelligence or by passion. It requires x-ray acting. We had this idea about madness, performed it in some kind of padded cell, so I used to lie on stage dimly lit for ten minites or so as the audience came in, on my stomach. I thought why why why put yourself though this? This is so fucking terrifying."
Unpleasant as it might have been, the enterprise paid off. Two RSC casting directors were in the audience one nignt, and within months he was in Stratford playing two plum roles--Henry V and Laertes in Hamlet-- and looking for all the world like the contender for our leading young classical actor. Instead, he opted for work in TV (Ibsen´s Ghost for the BBC as wll as Fortunes) and films (Claire Peploe´s High Season as wll as Month in the Country); above all, he opted to form Renaissance.
"I can´t say exactly why I did it. I think what we do in the theatre is collaborative, and I resist the power thing that I´ve encountered with variious directors--a slightly inhuman enjoyment of the power structure between actors and directors. When one is vulnerable, and trying to be good or work well, then sensitivity on the director´s part is very important, and I´ve seen that relationship exploited, and I resent that. It brings out the bolshy fucker in me."
Part ot the point of Renaissance is to redress the balance, by letting theatre´s most vulnerable workers take the upper hand. Next year should see Judi Dench´s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Geraldine McEwan´s AS YOU LIKE IT and Derek Jacobi´s HAMLET. All solid stuff, no doubt, but pershaps a shade on the safe side? Branagh´s response to the query is defensive -- his radical colleagues were very sniffy about the fact that the Prince of Wales is a fan, and came as a personal guest to HENRY V- but he makes reasonable (if debatable) observation that classical productions aren´t staged in an ideological vacuum, and that productions like NAPOLEON or PUBLIC ENEMY scarcely fought shy of politics.
There are at least ten months of hard slog ahead, and then if he has the courage, a year or more away from acting to write, read, and think. "I really regret the fact that I didn´t go to university. It´s not just a chippy sort of thing. When you come up against a play like TWELFTH NIGHT, you need...not exacty a grand vocabulary, but the sort of power over words that can let you unlock things. There are some directors who can do that with a word or a phrase, and I think they´re geniuses."
It doesn´t seem likely that academe would hold Branagh for long, though his old principal, Hugh Cruttwell, described him as "an acting animal", someone for whom going on stage was practically a vital need. Superstitious men (and Branagh admits to a more than passing interest in astrology and the like) would be looking nervously about them after so many early triumphs: whom the gods would destroy, they first make promising. He can, of course, comfort himself with the knowledge that even if Renaissance Theatre doesn´t triumph in the way he hopes, there are still plenty of eager casting directors in the National and RSC, let alone in the brave new world of Hollywood. Even so, Branagh can still sympathise with his parents´ anxieties; "It was the first night of PUBLIC ENEMY, and everything had gone well. At the cast party, my dad went up to a bloke and took him to one side and said, 'Tell me honestly, do you think our Ken´s got a chance in this business?' And he wasn´t fishing for compliments. He was genuinely worried."